Particle Fever

Yesterday I got a chance to see Particle Fever, the long-awaited film about particle physics. It’s at the New York Film Festival, where there will be another showing on Wednesday, although tickets are already sold out. Oliver Peters was also there, and has a detailed review.

My own reaction to the film was kind of schizophrenic: most of it I thought was fantastically good and I really hope it finds distribution and gets widely seen. On the other hand, some of it I thought was a really bad idea. First though, the really great aspects of the film.

The main structure of the film is built around the discovery of the Higgs at the LHC, starting at a point back around 2006 or so. Theorist David Kaplan is the person most responsible for the idea of the film and getting it made, and there’s footage of him visiting the LHC while ATLAS is being installed, getting shown around by Fabiola Gianotti, who later was to become ATLAS spokesperson. This part of the film shows very well the scale of the effort represented by the LHC and its detectors, as well as giving some idea of the physical environment experimentalists work in (both the huge experimental halls and the areas around them, as well as control rooms and crummy office spaces). There’s good use of high quality graphics to give some basic insight into what is going on. Interviews with a few ATLAS physicists add a human face to the story and explain the motivation that drives people to do this kind of work.

The cameras were also there for first beam back in 2008, as well as to capture people’s reaction to the depressing news of the accident a few days later that set the whole project back by a year. There’s wonderful footage of the scene late in 2009 when first collisions finally occurred, with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy providing a very appropriate soundtrack. I especially liked the scenes of a young postdoc (Monica Dunford) carrying her laptop around, elated to show everyone plots with data from the first collisions.

The last part of the film is dominated by the July 4, 2012 discovery announcement, doing a wonderful job of showing the media frenzy as well as the joy and excitement of the entire HEP physics community at that time. All in all, if you want to get someone turned on to high energy particle physics, or just convince a young person that a career in science is an attractive idea, the CERN footage in this film should do the job better than anything I’ve seen from even the highly competent CERN press office.

Theorists provide a parallel track throughout the film, with focus on Kaplan, his advisor Savas Dimopoulos, and Nima Arkani-Hamed. All of them are highly eloquent on the topic of the significance of fundamental HEP physics research. It is made clear that the fact that the LHC is not seeing SUSY or other new particles is a big problem for theorists like these who have devoted their careers to models of new physics that was supposed to show up at the LHC. In one scene Dimopoulos and Riccardo Barbieri are discussing the matter, with Barbieri saying he has wasted 40 years working on such things, and will soon be retiring. Dimopoulos says that in his case it’s just 30 years, but insists there is still two years to go (until the full-energy LHC) before really giving up. The relation of all this to the Higgs is not made clear.

As for the really bad idea, it’s the introduction of the multiverse into the theory part of the film. Kaplan is shown claiming that the multiverse predicts a 140 GeV Higgs, based on this paper of Yasunori Nomura and Lawrence Hall (who was Arkani-Hamed’s advisor). This is at a time when there were experimental hints of a 140 GeV Higgs. After they went away, and the mass came out at 125 GeV, the “prediction” is forgotten, but a long segment still has Arkani-Hamed going on about the CC and arguing for the multiverse. Just before this segment though, Dunford the experimentalist is shown Skyping with the filmmaker, warning them “Don’t listen to theorists”. At the film showing, Kaplan and Arkani-Hamed were there and answered questions at the end. One of the first questions (not from me…) was from an audience member who asked why they had put the material about the multiverse in the film, even though it had no real link to the Higgs or the LHC experiments. Arkani-Hamed admitted that the 140 Gev prediction was tenuous, there was no “sharp” link of the multiverse to the Higgs, and that no way is now known to get predictions out of the multiverse idea or test it. Kaplan explained that the intention was to make an “experiential” film, focusing on what theorists were talking about and thinking about, without getting into really trying to fully explain the scientific issues. The problem with this is that the film comes through as promoting the Dimopoulos/Arkani-Hamed view that no SUSY means a multiverse, without showing any challenge to such an argument.

In any case, it’s a beautifully done film, on a great topic. I hope it soon gets widely distributed, although perhaps with some sort of warning tag attached.

This entry was posted in Favorite Old Posts, Film Reviews, Multiverse Mania. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Particle Fever

  1. Yatima says:

    While we are talking about LHC:

    Google adds Large Hadron Collider tunnel to Street View

    “Google has dragged is Street View imaging kit to Switzerland, then lugged it beneath the earth to capture images of the tunnel containing CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC)….

    Sadly the images don’t quite let you be the atom, instead offering the chance to trundle through the LHC’s long and monotonous tunnel. Perhaps more insightful are some of the incidental sights: CERN’s surprisingly grubby, some of its walls weren’t poured by artisanal concrete-wranglers and there are plenty of places that look overdue for a fresh coat of paint.

    The image trove can be found here.

  2. Marcel van Velzen says:

    It’s a shame ignoring the two physicists who were brave enough to write already in 2009: “This results in $m_H=m_{\rm min}=126$ GeV, with only a few GeV uncertainty”. Basically assuming no new physics up to the Planck scale: With only a few GeV uncertainty!

    Even if they got lucky (which I don’t believe) THEY WON. Yes Mikhail Shaposhnikov and Christof Wetterich won and nobody else. Get used to it!

  3. May you tell me how (or when, or where) to see “Particle Fever”? I live in Italy, and would like my students to see the film. Will it be in theatres next months? Will it be translated for other countries? Hard asks, I know… so thank you for any answer of yours!

  4. Shantanu says:

    Peter, what do you think about the Wetterich/Shaposhnikov paper?

  5. Peter Woit says:

    As far as I know, the film has not yet found a distributor, so there aren’t plans yet for it to be in theaters.

    I’m no expert on the topic, my main thought about Wetterich/Shaposhnikov is that I’d like to hear from experts. From what I’ve seen, the sort of thing they are discussing deserves a lot more attention, about 10^500 times more than the landscape. It would have been a great idea for the filmmakers to interview them or someone else with serious ideas about the Higgs, rather than to feature Dimopoulos/Arkani-Hamed and the multiverse.

  6. Pingback: Stop the Insantiy, Physics is Cool Enough Without Excessive Hype!

  7. Tim Tait says:

    (Minor) Correction — Kaplan’s advisor was Ann Nelson of UW.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Tim Tait,
    Thanks. My misunderstanding of something said in the film. I gather Kaplan worked as a postdoc at SLAC with Dimopoulos, not as a student.

  9. Gordan Krnjaic says:


    The Shaposhnikov/Wetterich paper is certainly interesting, but ever since LEP, we’ve had indirect (but inconclusive) evidence to suggest that the Higgs should be in the 120 GeV ballpark. Given this prior and the hundreds of Higgs mass predictions out there, it’s not so surprising that one of them would land on ~ 126 GeV.

  10. Marcel van Velzen says:

    Hello Gordan. Basically I agree with what you wrote, but no one should make a claim of correctly predicting the Higgs mass (especially after it has been measured) in some fancy theory without mentioning the ones who were closest to the correct value with a 2.2 GeV error margin, reasonably ahead of time and who used very little new physics (far less than most of the correct/incorrect Higgs mass predictions with much larger error margins). If you want to make this into a claim game, at least mention the winners.

  11. Ray says:

    Take a look at this paper called Higgs Mass Predictions:
    All masses from 100-300 Gev are represented with quite a few around the 126 GeV value. In fact there was a crackpot paper which predicted 126 GeV based on four color theorem. Clearly if you exhaustively sample the whole parameter space you are bound to get lucky sometime.

  12. paddy says:

    On the Mikhail Shaposhnikov and Christof Wetterich prediction or postdiction: is not the question “Is their reasoning deserving of attention?” Like PW I await somebody knowledgable enough to say yea or nay.

  13. Columbia says:

    I am not an expert on asymptotic safety, but the Shaposhnikov paper has a few obvious issues. First is that the revised prediction is closer to 129 GeV, which is a special place theoretically for a number of reasons quite independent of asymptotic safety. Second is that it simply doesn’t answer all the important cosmology questions. Like what is dark matter, why so little antimatter, what is the inflaton. It doesn’t explain particle generations, flavor or CP, or the group structure of particle physics, and it still in principle involves a great deal of finetuning. One can go on…

    The problem is that any attempt at an answer for those questions will in principle change the value of their Higgs prediction. The authors are aware of this, and have released some minimal proposals which all have their own problems (like Higgs inflation). So I mean its far from a panacea at this time, but it deserves some more work

  14. Shantanu says:

    Having no connection to dark matter is not a reason to dismiss a theory. Note that despite what you hear inalmost every HEP talk, there is not a single shred of evidence from
    astrophysical observations that dark matter has anything to do with particle physics.
    Also as I have mentioned several times, whether inflation happened or not is still an open question.
    Also I don’t think supersymmetric models address baryogenesis

  15. FNesti says:

    “…Kaplan, his advisor Savas Dimopoulos, and Nima Arkani-Hamed”

    I don’t get what these people have to do with the Higgs – how dare they speak instead of the fathers of the field? Weinberg, Higgs, Glashow, Anderson, etc.

    As a theorist, I’m quite ashamed of this crap.

  16. fuzzy says:

    The director should have considered as characters also those who originally contributed to this field, right so! Possibly those mentioned by FNasti, or alternatively, Leonard Nimoy–depending on how one defines what “this field” is.

  17. FNesti (not FNasty thanks :) ) says:

    Dear fuzzy

    yes – the question of what “this field” is, is not a naive one, it contains the essence of the point. I may define a field as a topic plus the researchers working on it, with their respective ranking of academic achievements.

    Thus, without cutting any freedom of speech, I believe one should not be considered a possible spokesperson in a field if there is someone else much more entitled to it (no matter how smart one may be, or the number of citations).

    This point, which is a point of scientific integrity, I think is unsafely missed in Peter post.

    Overall this operation, as the multiverse issue, is evidently an opportunistic push of a new slogan and of a group of people in the public arena (scientific and general public) by exploiting a great experimental discovery. As such I think it should be recognized.

    As for Leonard Nimoy,

    McCoy: Think, Spock – what’s happening on your planet right now?
    Spock: My people are barbarians… warlike barbarians.

  18. fuzzy says:

    this is it, the noble race of particle theorists was Vulcanian and now is almost completely degraded into Romulans. But enough for kidding, I agree with you fully, FNesti:

    I join your “je accuse”. I am defending since long this view, that we should call physics the physics. If you publish a paper with 5K citations, saying that gravity is modified at the mm scale, and this is not, it is a serious problem that requires assessment of the field. We cannot continue to speak of physicists, as if it was a god-given title: we have to speak of what is physics and what it is not. maybe you remember, “not even wrong”.

  19. Yatima says:

    Off-topic but apparently the latest congressional pratfall consists in banning “the Chinaman” from entering NASA premises:

    US scientists boycott Nasa conference over China ban: Nasa facing backlash from US researchers due to rejection of Chinese nationals from conference

    Nasa is facing an extraordinary backlash from US researchers after it emerged that the space agency has banned Chinese scientists, including those working at US institutions, from a conference on grounds of national security.

    Nasa officials rejected applications from Chinese nationals who hoped to attend the meeting at the agency’s Ames research centre in California next month citing a law, passed in March, which prohibits anyone from China setting foot in a Nasa building.

    The law is part of a broad and aggressive move initiated by congressman Frank Wolf, chair of the House appropriations committee, which has jurisdiction over Nasa. It aims to restrict the foreign nationals’ access to Nasa facilities, ostensibly to counter espionage.

    Will this be “enhanced” to other institutions (when they are not in “shutdown” mode?) My cynical me says “sure”.

  20. Goran says:

    I strongly support what FNesti and fuzzy are saying about the danger of slogans in physics. Here they led to the incredible claim that if nothing new is found at the LHC, it will be proof of the multiuniverse (I keep seeing Pauli turning in his grave). This tragicomic argument reminds me how some in the fifties concluded that there could be dinosaurs on Venus.

    The argument goes like this (as recalled by Carl Sagan in : one can’t see a thing on the surface of Venus, because it’s covered with a dense layer of clouds. Clouds are made of water, therefore Venus must have a lot of water, thus the surface must be wet and there’s probably a swamp. If there’s a swamp there’s ferns, if there’s ferns… maybe there’s even dinosaurs. In summary:
    Observation: You could not see a thing.
    Conclusion: Dinosaurs.

    When I present this in my public lectures or colloquia, people laugh like crazy, especially physicists. And yet, amazingly enough, if you substitute ‘dinosaur’ with fancy words such as multiuniverse or landscape, it is often taken seriously by the same people who laugh at the above ‘science’.

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